Thursday, June 26, 2008

Liturgy: not so scary

One of the projects I am working on this summer is an article based on study of medieval liturgy.  Note, I am trained as a historian (who works on religious topics), rather than as a scholar of religion.  When I tell other historians that I am working on liturgical sources, I tend to get some interesting responses.  Often a look of suppressed terror creeps into their eyes.  "Oh," they say, edging away as if I might have something catching, "how interesting. I could never do that..."

Why are they so nervous?  Well, liturgiology (cool word, huh?) seems to be reputed as an especially esoteric part of the medieval studies field.  There are, I suppose, some good reasons for this.  Liturgical manuscripts are a distinct genre of manuscripts, with several different formal types.  The manuscripts use a lot of jargon and abbreviations which have to be unravelled.  Scholarship on liturgy also uses a lot of specialized vocabulary: can you tell Vespers from Matins? how about Lauds? what's the difference between an antiphon and a responsory? and so forth.  Further, many liturgiologists (even cooler word!) work on very early liturgies, which involve even more specialized manuscripts, plus languages like Syriac, etc.

I'm not venturing into those waters.  Instead, I'm working with late medieval liturgical manuscripts, which are safely in Latin.  Once I've gotten a grip on the conventions of liturgical manuscripts generally--which is possible through a couple of excellent introductions--the manuscripts themselves are not that hard to work through.  

Why put in the work?  Because this is what nuns (and monks) did most of the day.  Middle of the night, morning, scheduled intervals throughout the day, evening, the lives of people in monasteries were regulated by the liturgical routine.  This is what they read, sang, heard, and experienced throughout their days.  Liturgy had to have been crucial to how they understood themselves and the monastic life, and that's what I'm trying to uncover.

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